BookBrowse Reviews The Age of Genius by A.C. Grayling

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Age of Genius

The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind

by A.C. Grayling

The Age of Genius by A.C. Grayling X
The Age of Genius by A.C. Grayling
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2016, 368 pages

    May 2017, 368 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick
Buy This Book

About this Book



This nonfiction book explores many instances where great minds pursued the scientific process even when it was at odds with established religious doctrine.

Why do you think you think the way you think?

That rather flippant question conveys a genuinely serious idea. Most people probably spend little time – if any – thinking about why they believe what they believe. But as A.C. Grayling demonstrates in his sprawling, overstuffed, and occasionally revelatory intellectual history, The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind, the way we think is very much a product of our time. In fact, it's the rare thinker who can think outside of his or her time – and those are the people who tend to be lionized (Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, Nicolas Copernicus) or demonized (Giordano Bruno, Baruch Spinoza, Copernicus). Anyone can order from the menu that's presented to him or her, but dreaming up new items – some of which seem downright impossible to concoct – takes a genuine visionary.

And, in the seventeenth century, Grayling makes painfully clear, what was being served was established religion. Anyone who dared order from the non-believer's bill of fare was to be fed a most bitter repast – often as a last meal. As Grayling puts it in one of the book's many blunt iterations of his thesis, in the seventeenth century "The stage was thus set for conflict between, on the one hand, a new world-view based on commitment to observation and reason unconfined by the requirement to square with religious doctrine, and, on the other hand, the authority of scripture and the Church."

Building a book-length argument around his contention that "the seventeenth century is the moment when one world-view was displaced by another because the scientific displaced that of faith," Grayling paints a picture of astronomers, mathematicians, medical doctors, and even alchemists often reaching conclusions that even they dearly hoped weren't true – because the answers meant opposing Christian doctrine, unwise if you wanted to keep your job, freedom or head.

In one of the most ironic twists in western Civilization, Grayling argues that it was the religious wars of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century that gave rise to the scientific discoveries that would come to displace religion as a primary means of understanding the physical world. As armies crisscrossed Europe, military commanders began studying the trajectory of cannonballs, sailors plotted the stars to determine more efficient means of navigation, and army surgeons started making discoveries about the circulation of the blood and the presence of germs. Most of this study led to conclusions that contradicted the religious doctrine propagated by the powerful Popes and princes of the Western World.

And because a handful of courageous and independent-minded thinkers followed the science where it led, a revolution began, resulting in the balance of power morphing from the established Church fathers to the path-breaking scientists who comprised London's first government-sanctioned scientific body, The Royal Society. "At the beginning of the century the Church was prepared to kill in order to keep control of what can be thought; by the century's end this was no longer possible in Europe."

Grayling returns again and again to that keynote theme but along the way his book takes lots of interesting detours, exploring such important ideas as how the rise of letter writing fueled the scientific revolution and how even the most learned minds were sometimes seduced into studies of the occult, including a fevered pursuit of the legendary "Philosopher's Stone" (see 'Beyond the Book'). To my ear, though, the tone of the Grayling's prose is rather flat – think "textbook" and you've pretty much got it – so many of these unexpected sidelights are not presented as compellingly or dramatically as one might hope. And he sorely needs an editor to prune his interminable catalogue of dates, princes and battles that comprise the sections on the Thirty Years War, which requires martial discipline on the part of the reader to get through.

But on balance, Grayling has put forward a powerful argument for independent thinking as a vehicle of salvation, and if he gets lost in the weeds from time to time, at least it's nice to be in the presence of someone who hasn't mistaken the grasslands of the earth for the fabled Garden of Eden.

Reviewed by James Broderick

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2016, and has been updated for the May 2017 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  The Philosopher's Stone


Read-alikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked The Age of Genius, try these:

  • The Workshop and the World jacket

    The Workshop and the World

    by Robert P. Crease

    Published 2019

    About this book

    A fascinating look at key thinkers throughout history who have shaped public perception of science and the role of authority.

  • I Contain Multitudes jacket

    I Contain Multitudes

    by Ed Yong

    Published 2018

    About this book

    More by this author

    Joining the ranks of popular science classics like The Botany of Desire and The Selfish Gene, a groundbreaking, wondrously informative, and vastly entertaining examination of the most significant revolution in biology since Darwin - a "microbe's-eye view" of the world that reveals a marvelous, radically reconceived picture of life on earth.

Non-members are limited to two results. Become a member
Search read-alikes again
How we choose readalikes

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Moonrise Over New Jessup
    Moonrise Over New Jessup
    by Jamila Minnicks
    Jamila Minnicks' debut novel Moonrise Over New Jessup received the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially...
  • Book Jacket
    The Magician's Daughter
    by H.G. Parry
    "Magic isn't there to be hoarded like dragon's treasure. Magic is kind. It comes into ...
  • Book Jacket: The Great Displacement
    The Great Displacement
    by Jake Bittle
    On August 4, 2021, California's largest single wildfire to date torched through the small mountain ...
  • Book Jacket
    The Island of Missing Trees
    by Elif Shafak
    The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak tells a tale of generational trauma, explores identity ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The Nurse's Secret
by Amanda Skenandore
A fascinating historical novel based on the little-known story of America's first nursing school.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Last Russian Doll
    by Kristen Loesch

    A haunting epic of betrayal, revenge, and redemption following three generations of Russian women.

  • Book Jacket

    Once We Were Home
    by Jennifer Rosner

    From the author of The Yellow Bird Sings, a novel based on the true stories of children stolen in the wake of World War II.

Who Said...

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world...

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!


Solve this clue:

R Peter T P P

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.